Seeking RPO info

Discussion in 'The Real Thing- North America' started by nachoman, Jan 31, 2008.

  1. nachoman

    nachoman Guest

    Does anone know of a map or listing of all railway post office routes? My curiosity is whether all (or nearly all) railroads once carried mail. I imagine after the demise of the pony express and stagecoaches, yet before integrated highways, all mail would have had to be carried by rail. Is this correct?

    I assume the mail would be carried on the fastest passenger train over any particular line. But what about branchlines or shortlines? Would a railroad ever carry the mail in bags in a baggage car rather than in an RPO car?

    In other words, suppose a shortline or branchline ran a single passenger train each way each day. The main stations were at the terminals, with only 1-2 minor stations in between. Most, or all mail would go terminal to terminal. Would such a passenger train have an RPO car, or would the mail simply be carried as frieght in the baggage car?

  2. doctorwayne

    doctorwayne Active Member

    RPOs were used mainly where mail was sorted en route. Large railroads like the NYC and Pennsy ran solid mail trains, sometimes with several working RPOs and with lots of bagged mail in locked "Mail Storage" cars, which could be either baggage cars or express boxcars. These would be set-out at major points along the route, then broken down for further distribution. Many of these trains carried a single "rider" coach on the tail end.
    In Ian Wilson's series of books on CNR branchlines in the 1950s, there are photos of mail sacks being unloaded from a single-sheathed boxcar, and into the local agent's Model A Sedan. On many branchlines, mail would be moved in this manner or in a baggage car or combine.
    Any list or map showing RPO routes would be era-specific, so it might be best to narrow your search to a specific time frame.

  3. nachoman

    nachoman Guest

  4. Russ Bellinis

    Russ Bellinis Active Member

    Railroads moved all mail except air mail until the early 1970's. Mail was the one thing that kept the railroads from losing more money on passenger service than they did, and the switch to sending all first class mail by air lead directly to the railroads getting out of the passenger business and the formation of Amtrak.
  5. MasonJar

    MasonJar It's not rocket surgery

    Many passenger trains might more correctly be called "mail trains" with a provision for carrying passengers. It was really the government mail contract(s) that made the routes profitable for so long.

  6. nkp174

    nkp174 Active Member

    The RPOs were also built to standard designs (although not at first). The Rio Grande's Galloping Geese are/were an excellent example of an alternative to the Geese were primarily built to handle the mail contracts.

    Also, many RPOs and baggage cars did not have doors leading to the rest of the train. It was not uncommon for the mail compartment to be in a cage, with a separate door to the outside.
  7. ozzy

    ozzy Active Member

    the things i miss out on for being a "young buck" lol, i just barely remember cabooses . only passenger trains i ever seen was Amtrak, never seen a rail car that said "US MAIL" on it.
  8. eightyeightfan1

    eightyeightfan1 Now I'm AMP'd

    There's a funny story about mail train that happened on the real Central New England RR, just before the turn of the 19th Century.
    There was a flag stop, just south of Simsbury, Connecticut. The mail, would be tossed off the train on the platform, to the waiting postmaster, while on the fly. On the return trip from Simsbury, the postmaster would toss the outgoing mail, into an open door on the baggage car. If someone was getting on, or off, at the stop, the mail bags would be handed off.
    During an intense blizzard, the train came through, the bag was thrown, off the train, with the RPO guy thinking the postmaster was toasty warm in the depot. The postmaster, being late arriving at the depot, cause of the storm, figured, there was no mail. Just to be safe, he gave a quick search of the area anyway, then headed back to the warm confines of the post office.
    Months passed, and in mid-summer, some boys, playing in the river near by found the missing mail bag. The RPO guy missed the half a mile!
  9. nkp174

    nkp174 Active Member

    :eek: Good story!
  10. jetrock

    jetrock Member

    The Pony Express gets a lot of attention but it only lasted for a year and a half before being abandoned--it was too expensive and slow, compared to carrying mail by rail. Not every railroad carried mail, but they all wanted mail contracts: mail was light and paid well. Mail turns a train of passengers from a liability into profitability. Electric interurbans carried mail too.

    RPO cars were not staffed by railroad employees: they were postal workers, paid by the post office, and their car was off-limits to railroad employees. Typically locked from the inside, RPO staff were also armed at all times to deter train robbers.

    Mail stations aren't necessarily at terminals--mail would be transferred "on the fly." As mentioned above, mail was generally dropped off by flinging the locked mailbag out of the car. Mail was picked up by a hook that was extended from the side of the RPO car. The local postmaster would hang the mail bag on a special pole by the side of the tracks, and when the RPO car went past one of the staff would swing out a hook attached to one of the RPO's side doors. The hook would grab the middle of the bag as it went by, and the crew would haul in the bag--simultaneously kicking out mail to be dropped off. This didn't need to be done at a station--sometimes the local mail drop-off point was at some rural grade crossing, and the local mailman would wait in their mail car (or wagon) for the train to go by, pick up on the fly and drop off the local mail.

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